LOUISVILLE, KY. - In Cocke County, Tennessee, Kathy Holt is meeting with parents, day care providers and others to spread the word about what children need to know to be ready for kindergarten.
The former educator is among a group of leaders in three Appalachian communities chosen to try a new approach to improving the lives of rural children. A national partnership comprised of Save the Children, StriveTogether, Partners for Education at Berea College in Kentucky and the Annie E. Casey Foundation was announcing Tuesday plans to invest $1.2 million over the next three years into Cocke County and Whitley and Perry counties in Kentucky.
The money will go toward helping the communities meet the goals they've set for themselves, said Nick Carrington, Save the Children's director of collective impact. The organizations plan to expand the initiative into more rural communities around the country next year.
Officials said the initiative grew out of a desire to transform rural communities confronting high poverty, low resources and isolation. It seeks to use a broad-based approach to partnership-building within each community - involving schools, governments, nonprofits, businesses and individuals - to support children from cradle to career.
The program includes enlisting the help of organizations that might not typically be involved in education. For example, a nonprofit called Empower Cocke County made a video about kindergarten readiness that garnered 450 views on YouTube in a little over a week.
The project started in May with a handful of local leaders from each county coming together. They pored over data from a multitude of sources to pinpoint problems rural children face, then weighed how to best address them.
Holt uses local news outlets, a social media campaign and person-to-person meetings to engage the community about the importance of children starting kindergarten with essential skills. It's part of an effort to transform the rural community along the border of North Carolina, where the poverty level hovers at nearly 25 percent and about half the children enter school ready.
“We recognize that the earlier that we can touch these kids and help them and give them the supports they need, the better off. We figure if we can fix kindergarten readiness, it will automatically impact third-grade reading and even graduation rates in our community,” Holt said.
Partners for Education Executive Director Dreama Gentry said officials started with education goals because it's easy to talk about, but they plan to delve deeper to address root causes of student gaps that can include homelessness, hunger insecurity and drug addiction.
“It we're really going to move kindergarten readiness, we have to address root causes,” Gentry said. “It can't be just an education solution.”
Save the Children and Partners for Education, which already have several initiatives in Appalachia, are helping StriveTogether adapt an approach it has used successfully in mostly urban areas that relies on community partnerships and data to drive improvement.
“It is work that recognizes that solutions really lie with the people in the communities and if you can bring in a process and give them data and give them access to research and best practices ... they really can do a phenomenal job of developing strategies and impacting and improving the outcomes for kids,” Gentry said.
In rural America, Gentry said, groups often come in from the outside with solutions that don't work locally. She hopes listening to local people will change that.
Tiffany Herron, a Whitley County native who is touting the kindergarten-ready effort in that rural Kentucky county, called it “very empowering and very encouraging” to see local people working together toward a common goal.
Leaders in Perry County, Kentucky, decided to focus on reading proficiency since nearly half of third-graders are behind in reading skills, said Kristie Gorman, who is part of the effort there. She said teachers are getting trained on strategies to improve reading skills in hopes they'll see a long-term payoff.